Micromegas: Voltaire’s Trailblazing Sci-Fi Philosophical Homage to Newton and the Human Condition, in a Rare Vintage Children’s Book
By Maria Popova
When the great French Enlightenment philosopher and satirist Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) was traveling in England as a young man, he met Catherine Barton, Isaac Newton’s niece, who enchanted him with the story of how the trailblazing scientist had discovered gravity. So began Voltaire’s lifelong love affair with Newton’s work.
A few years later, when he met the Marquise du Châtelet — the remarkable woman mathematician with whom he fell in love — he wrote of her: “That lady whom I look upon as a great man … understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.” With help from his beloved, who had translated Newton’s Principia from Latin herself, Voltaire penned Elements of the Philosophy of Newton in 1738 — the first major work bringing Newton’s theories to a popular audience.
But his most unusual and wonderful celebration of Newton’s legacy came more than a decade later. In 1752, he penned Micromégas — a short story notable not only for being a seminal work of science fiction, but for addressing with astonishing prescience an equally astonishing array of issues enormously timely today: He envisions space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life two centuries before the word “astronaut” was coined; he champions animal consciousness a quarter millennium before we came to acknowledge it and study its complexities; above all, he speaks to the redemptive power of humility and critical thinking.
Voltaire tells the story of Micromegas, a brilliant giant from a distant planet, modeled after Newton and quite possibly a play on the great scientist’s famous proclamation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Micromegas voyages across the universe with his slightly less gigantic friend and eventually ends up on Earth, at first unable to see its tiny human inhabitants, then skeptical of their intelligence, and at last amused by their incongruous self-importance. At the heart of the story is a poignant reminder that greatness is always relative and arrogance always misplaced, for however great we are, there is always someone greater out there; and that however much we may wish to outsource the ultimate task of existence, we must discern the meaning of life for ourselves.
In 1967, more than two centuries after Voltaire penned his clever and imaginative allegory, writer Elizabeth Hall adapted it for young readers in Voltaire’s Micromegas (public library) — a marvelous vintage “children’s” book relaying Voltaire’s timeless message for all ages, with breathtaking illustrations by artist Don Freeman.
On one of those planets which revolve around the star named Sirius, there was a very clever young man. He was called Micromegas, a name which suits all big men, for, though they may be huge in their own land, there is always another land where they will find themselves small.
So huge is Micromegas that he stands eight leagues tall, his head twenty miles away from his feet and his intellect commensurate with his size. By the time he reaches adolescence at the age of about 500, he begins conducting scientific experiments that challenge the dogma of the land. Once he publishes his theories, the great ruler of Sirius is so displeased — much like Isaac Newton’s theories had displeased the religious leaders of his day — that he banishes Micromegas from the court for eight hundred years.
Micromegas was only slightly upset at being banished from court. Instead of grieving, he began to travel from planet to planet in order to develop his mind and heart.
On Saturn, he meets the local “dwarves” — only a mile tall — and becomes fast friends with the Secretary of the Academy of Saturn, who joins him on the cosmic voyage. Together, they visit the other planets in the Solar System until they come across an aurora borealis that carries them to Earth and drops them on the northern coast of the Baltic Sea.
After snacking on two snow-capped mountains for breakfast, they set about exploring this tiny world, which they traverse in a matter of hours, looking for signs of life.
They see “the puddle called the Mediterranean” and “that other little pond which is known as the Atlantic Ocean,” but their enormous eyes remain blind to the tiny creatures inhabiting the planet — and so the dwarf concludes that there must be no life on this jagged, irregular piece of rock with its strange rivers, none of which flow in a straight line, and its odd-shaped lakes, neither round nor square. But Micromegas is unconvinced.
“What makes me guess there is no life here is that it seems to me that sensible people would not want to live here,” [said the dwarf].
“Well,” said Micromegas, “perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”
Agitated over their argument, Micromegas accidentally breaks the string of his diamond necklace and discovers — another nod to Newton here — that because of how they are cut, the diamonds make excellent microscope lenses. With that makeshift microscope, the dwarf suddenly sees something moving under the water in the sea — a whale.
He lifted it up very skillfully with his little finger. He put it on his thumbnail. He showed it to the Sirian who began to laugh at the extreme smallness of the inhabitants of our globe.
The Saturnian, now certain that our world was inhabited, immediately imagined it was inhabited only by whales. Since he was a great reasoner, he wanted to guess from where so tiny a speck drew its movement and whether it had a mind and a will.
This upset Micromegas. He examined the animal very patiently. The result of the examination was that there were no reasons for believing that a soul inhabited the tiny whale. The two travelers therefore believed there was no intelligence on our earth.
But just as they’re drawing their conclusion, the two cosmic travelers spot something bigger than the whale floating on the Baltic Sea.
It is known that at this same time a flock of philosophers were returning from the Arctic Circle where they had been making observations. No one had noticed their expedition until that moment. The newspapers later said that their ship ran aground off the coast of Bothnia and that they had great difficulty in escaping.
Intrigued by this supposed new animal, Micromegas picks up the ship ever so gently, greatly alarming the ship’s still-invisible passengers. The commotion registers as a tickle — just enough for Micromegas to sense something moving. But his microscope, barely powerful enough to detect the whale, struggles to reveal these tiny human mites to his eye. Still, he stares intently until he begins to notice these tiny specks, not only moving but seemingly communicating with each other.
Inventive like Newton himself, Micromegas pulls out a pair of scissors — for who would travel the cosmos without one? — and clips off a piece of his nail, which he curls into a funnel to create a huge megaphone. Pointing it to his ear, he can suddenly hear the tiny creatures. Afraid that his great big voice would deafen them, he sticks a toothpick in his mouth to keep a safe distance from the ship, kneels, and lowers his voice to speak to the passengers softly.
After telling the earthlings how sorry he was that they were so tiny, he asked them if they had always been in such a wretched state, so near to not existing at all. The dwarf then asked them what they did on a world which belonged to whales, if they were happy, if they had souls, and a hundred other questions.
One reasoner in the crowd, more daring than the others, was shocked that the dwarf doubted he had a soul. Using his quadrant, he looked at the dwarf several times and said, “You believe, sir, because your head stretches a mile from your feet that you are a…”
The dwarf interrupts in astonishment. Impressed that the tiny human has been able to estimate his height, he concludes that they must surely have both a mind and a soul. Nearly two centuries before the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, in which some of Earth’s real-life leading scientists asserted that nonhuman animals have consciousness, Micromegas declares:
More than ever I see that we must not judge anything by size. If it is possible that there are being smaller than these tiny specks, it is also possible that they have minds superior to those splendid animals I have seen in the sky.
The more Micromegas comes to know Earth and its inhabitants, the more impressed he becomes with their merits — and yet he remains blind to their flaws:
Micromegas suggested that the tiny creatures on earth, having such fine minds and small bodies, must spend their lives in perfect happiness.
All the philosophers shook their heads.
One of them, more courageous than the rest, distills for the celestial visitor the absurdity of every war as Voltaire once again exerts his satirical genius of putting in perspective the grandiose pettiness of the human condition:
“For example,” he said, “do you know that as I am speaking to you, there are one hundred thousand fools wearing hats, who are killing one hundred thousand other animals wearing turbans, or in turn are being massacred by them? And that people have acted in this way for as long as man can remember?”
The Sirian shuddered. He asked what the reason could be for such horrible quarrels among such pitiful animals.
“They are fighting,” said the philosopher, “over a few piles of dirt as big as your heel. They slaughter one another, not for a single straw of the dirt piles, but to decide whether they will belong to a man called Sultan or to another called Caesar. Neither Sultan nor Caesar has ever seen the little bits of dirt.”
Appalled, Micromegas inquires how the philosophers, being among the few wise men who don’t kill others for a living, spend their time:
“We dissect flies,” answered the philosopher. “We measure lines. We study numbers. We agree on two or three points which we understand, and we disagree on two or three thousand which we don’t understand.”
But then, as Micromegas begins inquiring about the things on which the earthlings do agree, Voltaire throws his most piercing spear of cultural critique, satirizing the ludicrous religious dogma which Newton had to combat in his day:
Then, unfortunately, one of the puny earthlings said he knew the secret of the universe. He regarded the two celestial inhabitants from head to toe. Throwing back his head, the better to shout and make himself heard, he said that the visitors’ very selves, their worlds, their suns, their stars, all were made solely for man.
At this speech the two travelers fell on each other, choking with laughter. Their shoulders shook. Their bellies shook. In these convulsions, the ship that the Sirian was balancing on his nail tumbled into the pocket of the dwarf’s trousers.
Micromegas and the dwarf, being kindly and conscientious even in the face of such absurd arrogance, recover the ship from the pocket and gently place it back onto the sea. As a parting gift, before leaping onto another aurora borealis to return home, Micromegas offers the earthlings “a fine book of philosophy” to take to the Academy of Sciences in Paris.
But when the Secretary of the Academy — a Voltaire lookalike — opens the tome, he discovers a book of empty pages. Micromegas has delivered his message: Earthlings must learn philosophy — that is, the art of understanding how to live and how to die — for themselves.
How lamentable that a “children’s” book as imaginative and insightful and full of timeless, ageless wisdom as Voltaire’s Micromegas should go out of print — perhaps a publisher with a good heart and a good head on her shoulders would consider bringing it back for today’s young readers, who need Voltaire’s message of humility and critical thinking perhaps more than ever. In the meantime, used copies do exist and are very much worth the used-book hunt or the trip to the library.
Complement it with David the Dreamer, another unusual vintage children’s book illustrated by Freud’s eccentric niece, and The Hole, a contemporary Scandinavian counterpart that enchants young readers with existential questions, then revisit Voltaire on how to write well and stay true to your creative vision and the story of how he fell in love with the brilliant Marquise.
Published August 14, 2015